Duff Said: Awash with rum

13 February, 2020

As the weather gets bleak Philip Duff turns to the warming notes of rum for comfort. But there are currently several elements unsettling the category

As I write, windchill has brought the effective temperature here in Manhattan down to below freezing. So naturally, I’m thinking about rum. My better-organised colleagues (which is to say, all of them) are already ahead of the game and have planned nice, relaxing distillery visits to the Caribbean and South America for when it gets really cold in January and February. I’m thinking, though, about liquids and brands. Liquid-wise, we are awash with rum, of all types and qualities, from everywhere that sugarcane grows and several places (such as Scotland) where it most assuredly does not. New ground continues to be broken: rum ambassador Ian Burrell recently collaborated with rum maverick Richard Seale to create Equiano, what is said to be the world’s first Afro-Caribbean rum, made from a combination of Mauritian and (Seale’s) Barbados rum. Rumours abound of a global molasses shortage, however. As a civilisation we have become ever-more adept at extracting maximum sugar crystals from sugarcane juice, so there is less and less molasses left over, with lower and lower percentages of fermentable sugars. Another angle is social responsibility. A couple of years ago the Flor de Caña brand from Nicaragua was the target of a social media boycott after news emerged of seasonally-contracted cane cutters in Nicaragua contracting CKDu, a kidney disease caused by long-term dehydration. Although the situation turned out to be more complex than could be solved with a boycott – as is usually the case these days – it focused attention on the people involved in sugarcane harvesting. Because it’s a sellers’ market in the molasses game, there is, I have been told, no chance of specifying terms such as ‘organic’, or finding out where the molasses came from and how that farm treats its employees and seasonal labourers.The global responsible-business certification for the sugar industry is Bonsucro, but it’s unclear when you’re buying molasses if some, all, or none of it originates from Bonsucro farms; molasses is all mixed together. Rhum agricole, and indeed any rum originating from the French West Indies, can be drunk with a clear conscience – as départements de France, all the workers in those overseas territories enjoy every employment benefit and protection in Martinique and Guadeloupe that they would in Marseilles or Bordeaux. Brand-wise it’s a different story. Mega-brands dominate and the old adage “consumers don’t know Bacardi is rum” holds true. Of the top 10 rum brands which collectively sold a total of 72m 9-litre cases, according to the 2019 Millionaire’s list, the top five brands accounted for 89% of those sales. Recent contracts such as Black Tears with the Cuban state rum company hint at the island opening still further to foreign investment, but the US remains firmly closed for Cuban business.The World’s 50 Best Bars reported a strong correlation between their 10 bestselling rums and 10 ten rum brands they considered ‘trending’ (ie, cool): seven of the bestselling this year were also trending brands. Encouraging signs are the rejuvenation of historical rum distilling and blending locales such as the US (Privateer, Owney’s) and the UK (Hayman’s Merser’s rum) and the expansion of brands championing lesserknown countries of origin (Nusa Caña from Indonesia, Uruapan from Mexico, and Copalli from Belize). It is a mug’s game to try to predict who’ll break into the Millionaire’s Club next but, in the meantime, there’s never been a better time to order a Daiquiri, or perhaps – I am writing on UK election day, before the results have emerged – an El Presidente?

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